Descending Into Kalaupapa’s Dark Past on Molokai, Hawaii

Descending into Kalaupapa’s dark past

Buzzy Sproat has experienced a lot during his time on the remote island of Molokai. The legendary mule trainer has spent the last 40 years guiding visitors down the world’s tallest sea cliffs to the hauntingly beautiful Kalaupapa peninsula.

As we saddled up, Buzzy went through his standard orientation and explained the role of his trusty mules.

“These mules are going to work today,” he said jokingly.

“This is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship.”

Our group chuckled, fully aware that Buzzy’s intent was to lighten the mood and remind us that his mules are well-trained. Little did he know the irony of his words and the impact they would have on us later that morning.

Kalaupapa has a dark history, one that has profoundly shaped the spirit of Molokai.
From 1866 to 1969, the isolated peninsula was the location of a leprosy settlement that housed thousands of suffering men, women and children who were exiled to Molokai and cut off from society.

The towering sea cliffs separate the peninsula from the rest of the island, creating a natural quarantine that pleased the government and fearful Westerners. Hawaiians did not carry the same social stigmas as their Western counterparts, but politics, fear and religion can be powerful tools of influence.

Before a cure for Hansen’s Disease (the appropriate name for the disease) was developed, people were afraid of contracting the terrible disease. The solution, right or wrong, was to banish the afflicted to this secluded settlement.
Essentially sentencing them to a life of solitude and segregation.

As we descended the steep switchbacks, Buzzy shared his personal experiences and stories about the town and people of Kalaupapa.

“The people who live here have been through a lot,” he said in a soft, compassionate voice.

“When we get to the town, you can’t take pictures of the residents. They probably won’t come out while we’re here, but if they do, you gotta respect their privacy. This is their home.”

Our curiousity made us uncomfortable.

We boarded the beat-up yellow school bus that waited for us at the base of the trail. Buzzy jumped behind the wheel and drove a few minutes until we reached the church in the center of the quiet, seemingly abandoned town.

The streets are empty. Not a sole in sight.

“You see that gas station,” said Buzzy. “Once a year the ship comes and they fill it up. They charge the same rate all year until the next shipment arrives.”

He joked, “Now wouldn’t it be nice to have gas prices stay the same all year?!”

Given the size of the town and the limited need for transportation, we assume a full tank of gas goes a long way in Kalaupapa.

Almost on queue, a thick storm cloud slowly consumed the town, creating an eerie atmosphere.

Buzzy escorted our group to the entrance of St. Francis Parish. We were greeted by Father Patrick Killilea, the permanent pastor at the white-washed church located in the heart of town.

Father Pat, as he’s known on the island, shared the story of the church and legacy of Father Damien de Veuster, the Catholic missionary from Belgium who ministered and cared for the exiled.

“Damien was more than just a holy man of the church. He was the carpenter, the handyman, the farmer, the administrator, the doctor. He was their leader” said Father Pat proudly.

“There really wasn’t anything here before Damien arrived. He built the church, the hospital. And he gave the residents hope.”

As we listened to Father Pat speak about Damien’s life, we began to understand the importance of his work and the bravery of his commitment to serve the afflicted.

Damien’s work was rewarded in October of 2009 when Pope Benedict XVI canonized him and declared him a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.
It’s a powerful story. One that’s deeply rooted in politics, racism, religion, ignorance and fear.

Our sobering tour continued to the grave and monument of Mother Marianne Cope. Mother Marianne relocated to Kalaupapa to care for the deteriorating Father Damien, who had contracted the disease, and take over his work after his passing.
Unlike Damien, Marianne did not contract Hansen’s Disease during her time in Kalaupapa. Her tireless work was also recognized by Pope Benedict XVI and, in October 2012, she was canonized and given the name Saint Marianne of Molokai.

The rickety yellow school bus continued on, bouncing down an unpaved road to the remote community of Kalawao on the eastern side of the peninsula. We stopped at Saint Philomena Roman Catholic Church, a simple but formidable church that was built by Saint Damien. It’s also the location of Saint Damien’s original grave (pictured below).

The church has been refurbished over the years but it’s rarely used for religious purposes. It now stands as a reminder of Damien’s selfless work and acts as a symbol of strength.

As we walked along its creaky wooden floors, we couldn’t help but feel the presence of Kalaupapa’s dark past. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to visit alone at night (insert dramatic horror film music here).

“The way they treated these people was terrible,” said Buzzy. “They wouldn’t even dock the boats. They just pushed them in the water and told them to swim.”

Buzzy pointed to a rocky beach at the foot of the steep sea cliffs.

“That’s where they would swim to shore. It’s hard to believe people could do that, but that’s the way it was back then. Some didn’t make it. Those that did, didn’t make it for very long.”

We were reminded of Buzzy’s earlier statement: This is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship

We sensed that the stories of Kalaupapa’s history still effect Buzzy, even after all these years. He would often slide in a joke to lighten the mood, but his expressions told a different story.

“My mother’s cousin was in the colony. But nobody knew. She got sick and went to the hospital. They said she was sent away to get special treatment. Nobody knew she was here until much later,” he said with a sobering tone.

He closed the door of the yellow bus and headed back to the town.

As we puttered through the town, Buzzy pointed at buildings and explained their purpose. The grocery store, the post office, the medical center.
When we approached the former visitors building he pulled the bus over and cut the engine. He wanted to tell us another story but it required his full attention.

“A few years ago, two kids came to this place to visit their mom for the first time,” Buzzy began. “They’re in their 40’s now. But when they were born, their mother had the disease. So the kids were taken away at birth. They never met her. And she never met them. Until that day.”

He pointed to the visitor’s room, the location of this tearful reunion. “She was not allowed to contact her kids. They were taken away from her so that they could have a better life”.

We empathized and were once again reminded of Buzzy’s earlier statement: “This is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship.”

Effective treatment of Hansen’s disease was discovered in the 1940’s. This lead to further development of a cure and subsequently the patients of Kalaupapa were allowed to leave the settlement and return to their homes. Many residents left the community but a few elderly survivors have remained.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park, a National Historic Landmark in the United States, was established in 1980 to preserve the cultural and physical settings of the two leper colonies (Kalawao and Kalaupapa) and to educate future generations.

Travel tip – To visit the Kalaupapa peninsula you must take a tour. We took the Molokai Mule Tour (read about our experience here). You don’t have to take the mule tour, you can also catch a short flight or hike the trail, but you must be accompanied by a guide.

Home “Improv” Ment – Walls Fall Down and Go Boom When Not Attached

I thought I did some shoddy repairs in my life, but this was just scary. The installer of a wall that I planned on removing had never been attached to the ceiling. It was basically just caulked to the ceiling, which made it look like it was actually attached.

One end of the wall ended halfway through the living room and the other end cornered at the hallway. I tore most of the drywall off and found that the top 2 feet was plaster again, go figure. I thought I’d start at the hall end and start removing bit by bit as I went across the room. So I break out my trusty saws-all, and start cutting at the corner next to the hallway.

I really did have a plan, honest! I think I only removed one 2*4 at the joint next to the hallway, and I thought the next day I would just remove one 2*4 at a time and stack them in the backyard. After doing this it had gotten late so it was time to close off the room, (we have 5 pets, one of them being our young Son), and go to bed.

Well, about 2:34:21am, (I really do remember the time EXACTLY), there was a noise that sounded like a bus just drove through the front door into our living room. After picking myself up off the floor, because either that’s where I landed or that’s where my wife kicked me to, I slowly walked through the house into the hallway where the living room door is. It was odd, I couldn’t open the door from the hallway. I then had to go through the back bathroom which leads to the back door near the kitchen. All the furniture from the living room was now blocking access to the living room from that side. Still a little sleepy but very curious state went back to the bedroom to get dressed and tell my wife that I still had no clue what had happened. After getting dressed I went out the back door and around the house to the gate, which I couldn’t get open because that was the next project on my list to fix. I ended up having to climb the fence because the tools that I needed to get the gate open were still in the living room. After making it over the fence and ripping my shorts in the process, I made it to the front door. This is when I realized that my door keys were in my other pair of pants on the bedroom dresser! Well, I inspected the front of the house, no bus was found. I thought I could just look through the windows and see what happened, that’s when I remembered that I had put plastic on all the windows to keep the dust from getting into the window slides. Now it was time to make my way back over the fence, into the house, and in the bedroom for a second time to tell my wife that I still had no clue what happened. I did however get to give her some good information; there was no bus in the living room! Of course, she hadn’t even thought of that and now that made her worry even more.

Finally, I’m on my way back out, this time with the front door keys and a towel to cover the sharp edges of the fence. I open the front door to find that the wall I was going to remove had removed itself entirely, taking my door frame to the hallway with it. Well, not much I could do at 3am, so back to bed I go. Then I had to explain to my wife that the wall that I was trying to get to fall over the day before, did. (Oh come on, it was just a little white-lie, right). I didn’t get back to sleep the rest of the night; I think my heart was still racing until around 6am.

My wife gets up the next morning, (I didn’t want to get up until noon), and she makes her way into the kitchen and grabs a bite to eat. She was running a little late because something had woken her up earlier that morning. And for some reason, she blamed me. That wasn’t the worst part, since she was running late, she took off out of the kitchen ran back through the bedroom, (waking me up in the process), and out to the hallway door. Which only opened about 1 inch. I never knew my wife new those words. To say the least, I was wide awake as she came back through the bedroom and for some reason, she wasn’t happy. I told her I would take care of it today and she went to the back door. Now I’m still very sleepy and not thinking very well. She returns even madder than before because she can’t get out of the backyard through the broken gate that I had told her I fixed a while ago. So I had to get the towel and help her over the fence and yes, she was late for work. So of course, the phone rang about the time I finally fell back asleep again just so she could let me know.

It did make the job easier! The next day I just lifted what was left of the broken wall up on my saw horse and trimmed away. Which was what my plan was to begin with, minus the 2:34:21am crash. But I don’t suggest allowing your walls to fall on their own. They have a tendency to do a lot of damage on the way down! You wouldn’t believe the noise they can make at such a quiet hour! And besides, we needed new carpet anyway…

The 5 Year Old Stanley Thermos

It’s been 5 years since I bought my first Stanley thermos, poured hot coffee in it, and brought it to the office. The thermos itself has been dropped, accidentally kicked, and pounded countless times. There was even a time when a it got run over by a coworker’s car. Even after all of that, my trust Stanley thermos still keeps my coffee hot and my juices cold, like any good thermos should.

The Stanley thermos looks like it has seen better days. There are dents on the underside, scratches all over the body, the colors may have faded a little – the thermos basically looks like it should after all those years of abuse. I think it was more durable than expected by anybody, seeing as to how it only suffered minor dents and scratches back when it accidentally slipped from my hands, rolled a few feet through the parking lot, landed straight in the path of a coworker’s backing car, and got rolled over by one of the car’s tires.

Getting run over by a car was the worst that ever happened to my trusty Stanley thermos. There are other minor misfortunes that befell said thermos, though. Like the time when it fell down in the space between two adjacent cubicles, got wedged in the space, and found itself being violently pulled and tugged at by its owner. In hindsight, I think I could have done other lesser flasks a lot of damage with that move. I’m not a big man, but I believe I could have bent the Stanley thermos if it wasn’t made so tough.

Come to think of it, I’m a really clumsy person and tend to damage or break a lot of things, and the Stanley thermos may have taken the brunt of it, owing in large part to its durability and toughness, allowing it to take accident after accident and still keeping itself largely intact for the next one. It was a tank. A really small, important, utility service tank filled with hot beverage.

What made my Stanley thermos even more amazing besides its innate toughness is the fact that it still works as well as it did 5 years ago. I would have expected the inner walls to be compromised by all the shock and impact it received, resulting in loss of thermal insulation. I expected it to develop a tear or a hole at the very least, and spill coffee all over my pants when I carry it to work, or when I’m sitting on the bus. I would consider it as the thermos’ well-deserved revenge for all those years of abuse. Fortunately, my trusty thermos is still loyal, and still serving me hot coffee, showing no sign of ever slowing down, or cooling off.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see the day when my Stanley thermos stops working right, having no actual desire to intentionally break it. Maybe my son will inherit it, if he ever develops a craving for caffeine, and he finds himself working for a stingy company that won’t even give its employees the benefit of an office coffeemaker.